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Defense bill outlines final tenant bill of rights guidelines for military housing

John Hoyt, the Hunt military communities vice president, explains the mold remediation work being done by Hunt at Keesler Air Force Base's Bay Ridge Housing to base leadership on Aug. 28, 2018.

KEMBERLY GROUE/U.S. AIR FORCE

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 17, 2019

Military commanders now have the final say in solving disputes between residents and the private companies that manage military housing under a new tenant bill of rights outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act.

In the largest reform of military housing since 1996, when housing management was given to private companies, the defense policy bill lays out the specifics of tenants’ rights and a system for resolving disputes with landlords and creates a new position of a chief housing officer to hold companies accountable to the standards described in their contracts and the new law.

The Senate passed the NDAA on Tuesday. The bill now must be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

“We support the entire tenant bill of rights and feel like it is made stronger by being written into law,” said Eryn Wagnon, director of government relations for the Military Officers Association of America, one of many organizations to provide feedback on what should be included in the bill of rights.

Shannon Razsadin, executive director of Military Family Advocacy Network, also said the inclusion of housing reform within the NDAA was good for families.

“A key issue in our research findings was that families were frustrated with the quality of the housing and the services they were receiving from privatized housing companies,” she said in a statement. “We know that families are still struggling. The bottom line is these families had no voice when it came to issues in their homes. We look forward to a path toward accountability and making healthy and safe homes for military families a priority.”

One year ago, Reuters began reporting on the poor conditions of some military housing, including mold and pest infestations, lead paint and inadequate maintenance systems. Since then, Congress has stepped in and held a series of hearings to determine the best steps in solving these problems, which helped lead to a tenant bill of rights and other new oversight improvements.

Under the new guidelines for dispute resolution, a resident can submit a request online and must receive confirmation within 24 hours. While earlier drafts of the bill of rights called for a neutral third party to conduct arbitration, settling disputes is now the responsibility of the base or regional commander, who must complete an investigation within seven days that includes a physical inspection of the home.

The commander then must speak to the chief of the installation housing management office, a representative for the landlord of the housing unit, the tenant, a qualified judge advocate or civilian attorney who is a federal employee, and a civil engineer when the dispute involves maintenance. A final decision is due within 30 days of receipt of the request or 60 days in approved cases.

“Without a formal process, escalated issues were not being addressed properly and [the Defense Department] had little oversight on these issues,” Wagnon said. “We provided input to Congress on how the process should work to ensure families concerns are addressed in a timely fashion, the services have oversight of escalated issues and families are educated on legal options should escalation need to be taken further.”

Private housing companies have a choice in whether they sign on to these new dispute resolution laws, though Congress will take into account whether a company did not agree to it when renewing contracts, according to the NDAA. Most housing companies have 50-year contracts to manage base housing. While each company signed contracts at different times, the earliest agreements date back to 1996.

While the bill of rights doesn’t block residents’ ability from suing a private housing company, a judge could question why this arbitration route wasn’t chosen, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think when you have an adjudication process, and I’m not a lawyer, but courts are going to ask why you didn’t give them an opportunity to fix it or why you didn’t go through the local administrative process first,” he said.

Outside the dispute resolution, the bill of rights grants residents a handful of other new options, including access to a seven-year maintenance history of a home prior to renting it. However, it’s unclear how helpful this could be as a recent Government Accountability Office report deemed the records of all 14 private housing management companies as unreliable.

Wagnon said it does raise concerns.

“We still think giving this information to tenants is useful because it will highlight issues documented, but tenants should be made aware that documentation may not be a complete history,” she said.

Other new rights include a new chief housing officer position, providing sufficient time for an inspection before moving in and access to legal assistance and housing advocates. The new chief housing officer will be an additional duty given to a presidential appointee within the Defense Department. The defense secretary has 60 days to name this person, who will create a standardization of policies and processes regarding housing units and oversee the implementation of the bill of rights.

Mixed in with these new reforms are rights that residents already have, but which haven’t been enforced, such as housing that is safe, free of health hazards and contains working appliances. Contracts between the military and the private housing companies stipulate that the companies must provide housing that meets federal standards and the standards of the state in which the housing is located.

“My question continues to be, ‘This is great, I’m glad you put it in writing, but where is the enforcement mechanism?’” asked Crystal Cornwall, a Marine Corps spouse and executive director of the nonprofit Safe Military Housing Initiative.

She said she fears that just one new housing chief working in the Pentagon cannot manage all the problems occurring within the 205,000 units of military family housing and the military will soon find themselves facing these same problems.

“It’s great to have a bill of rights and a bill of responsibilities, but if you don’t have a clear path to enforcement, what is the point?” Cornwall said. “What is the timeline on that path, how efficient is it, how many layers are there, and how does the dispute resolution play into that?”

thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori